Driving in Paris isn’t for Everyone

Written by admin on July 5, 2009 – 3:35 pm -

Driving in France, especially Paris, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Navigating the Etoile at the pinnacle of the Champs-Élysées, with its eleven intersecting streets, has caused some drivers to have cardiac arrest. I’m not kidding. More than a few cars have been abandoned out of sheer terror. Driving in France, especially Paris, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Navigating the Etoile at the pinnacle of the Champs-Élysées, with its eleven intersecting streets, has caused some drivers to have cardiac arrest. I’m not kidding.

More than a few cars have been abandoned out of sheer terror. I used to close my eyes when even the most experienced taxi driver, who needs nerves of steel, would approach the circle. Not everyone is comfortable with the sensation of driving or riding in a bumper car and being a “can you hit me” target. Vehicles of all sizes and at various speeds come from each and every direction and drivers need eyes in the back of their heads.

One of the chores many American expats dread is obtaining a French driver’s license. Once someone is issued a carte de séjour, a resident’s card that gives them the right to remain in France for a specified period without leaving, as well as the pleasure of paying the French tax man, they’re required to obtain a French driver’s license within a year if they want to own a car and validate their insurance.

Some multinational corporations tell their non-EU executives to take public transportation and have a company car at their disposal to use when they’re on official business. If families are involved and they need to play chauffeur, they’re going to have to bite the bullet and absent themselves from the office in order to be legal when they climb behind the wheel.

Unless you come from one of the nine states in the U.S. that offers people with French license reciprocity, plan on forking over approximately 1000 € and spending 20 hours studying plus on-the-road practice. Just because you’ve been driving forever in the U.S., don’t assume you’ll pass the French driver’s test from hell on the first round. Few expats do and many have to retake the classes.

One friend who couldn’t hack the exam in Paris ended up taking it in Provence where she had a second home. She had to re-take classes from a local school and pay for the privilege. But the people in charge of issuing driver licenses in the country tend to be kinder in the south.

Most Americans who live in Paris use public transportation and, when they want to get out of town, rent a car from AutoEurope. All they need is a U.S. driver’s license that’s valid for at least another six months and their passport. Renting is so much less expensive than owning a car, maintaining it and paying for parking. Having done the calculations, I realized I could call a limousine if I only wanted to go to the grocery store and financially be ahead and then some.

By now you’re probably asking yourself why French drivers aren’t the best and why most have a “take no prisoners” attitude.

One of the key reasons is that once they get their license at the age of 18, it’s valid for their entire lifetime. No eye tests are required and when a person turns 75 (that’s the rule in most American states), there’s no need to get a health certificate from the physician, much less a certificate that they can actually see. Until last year, the Washington, D.C. government required that, in order to renew a driver’s permit after someone turned 75, they had to take another road test although that’s no longer the case because it smelled of age discrimination.

When driving in the French countryside, don’t be shocked if you find yourself behind a clunker of a car that isn’t going anywhere near the speed limit. When you get the opportunity to pass the car, don’t be surprised if you see someone of a certain age behind the wheel. And if a policeman stops the driver and requests a license, it will have the photo from when the permit was issued.

A neighbor of mine from Provence called his 92-year-old father’s agent and asked him to revoke the car’s insurance coverage, since his father was a menace to himself and everyone else who came into his path. Dad was furious about having to surrender his car keys. But Jean-Jacques slept better and no longer had to make sporadic trips to the hospital after the car had hit a tree.

Ah, nostalgia – but I’m in favor of people being tested in order to ensure they should still be driving. A person driving too slowly can cause as many accidents as someone who’s driving like a bat out of hell. But, given reasonable sobriety, chances are probable the latter category of drivers have better reflexes.

Cars, no matter where, are potential weapons. Count me among the group that approves of not giving a person a life-time right to drive when they’re no longer in shape.

© Paris New Media, LLC


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Les Halles—No longer an eyesore?

Written by admin on July 5, 2009 – 3:33 pm -

In spite of the economic crisis, the Paris city council just approved a one-billion-dollar makeover for Les Halles. The enormous project to renovate the shopping complex, its surrounding gardens, and one of Europe’s busiest subway stations has been under discussion for the past seven years and has become a political football. In spite of the economic crisis, the Paris city council just approved a one-billion-dollar makeover for Les Halles.

The enormous project to renovate the shopping complex, its surrounding gardens, and one of Europe’s busiest subway stations has been under discussion for the past seven years and has become a political football.

Many people avoid the area — located in the 1st arrondissement, the area was known as “the stomach” of Paris — that over the years has developed a seedy side, becoming a magnet for people who were up to no good and liked to prowl the miles and miles of underground shopping and fast-food emporiums. Our colleague and often-skeptical observer of Paris, Joseph Lestrange, describes Les Halles as resembling  “un dépotoir de vaisseaux spatiaux,” or a spaceship junkyard.  “All it needs,” he tells us, “is a chain link fence and a couple of nasty dogs–and maybe some oily rags and a match.”

Mention Les Halles to people who knew Paris before the wholesale market was demolished in 1971 and you’ll be greeted by looks of nostalgia for the good old days. Vendors and buyers gathered to sell and buy every variety of food and flowers. It was not only a market but also a social gathering place, where chefs and neighbors discussed the fare for the day.  Anyone who went to the market that opened at 5 a.m. was exposed to La vraie France.  Some of the best restaurants in Paris sprung up in the area — people wanted to eat and weren’t going to be satisfied with any old slop.

Some restaurants opened at the crack of dawn, since that’s when market workers were hungry and their work for the day was done.  If they’d been driving all night, they didn’t want an omelet, but a full-blown meal complete with wine and more.  The merchants would meander in later.  Les Halles has an incredible history. In 1183, King Philippe II Auguste built a shelter for the vendors. In the 1850s, massive glass and iron buildings, designed by architect Victor Baltard, were constructed.  When the city of Paris decided is was no longer feasible to have trucks and more trucks descending into the center, Rungis was constructed.  (Rungis is located seven miles from Paris near Orly Airport and consists of one metal warehouse after another.  It’s reputed to be the largest wholesale market in the world, but is totally devoid of charm. Only professionals are supposed to buy there, but occasionally a ‘normal’ person will be able to sneak into this huge complex, where you literally need a car to go from one building to another.)

Even though funds are at a premium, Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoë has staunchly defended the makeover as a priority for the rebirth of the neighborhood, saying: “Les Halles is one Paris’s main attractions.”

The design, headed by French architect and urban planner David Mangin, will be “a center for hip-hop culture.” Projected to be finished in 2016, it’s slated to have a 14,000 square-meter glass canopy that will cover the shopping complex, library, a concert hall, cafes and green spaces.

The children’s playground and the Place Rene-Cassin, at the foot of the gothic Saint Eustache, will remain unchanged because the area’s residents were adamant that the parks be preserved.

Les Halles-Chatelet Métro and suburban train stations—used by approximately 800,000 people a day—will be modernized, adding additional entrances and renovated waiting areas.

Let’s hope this inner city re-do will prove to be an asset to the city and will morph Les Halles from beast into a beauty that will become a major tourist attraction.  Competing with classical French architecture is a challenge as has been proven by La Défense and the Tour Montparnasse — both which feel out of place with Baron Haussmann’s design of Paris in the mid-1800s.

People agree there’s a time when progress is indicated and needed. Let’s hope this rendition outshines the last. What do you think?  Are you an advocate of modern French architecture?  Do you think this is a judicious period time to fork over all of this money or should the city leave things as they are currently?  Come talk to us and tell us your thoughts at TWITTER.

© Paris New Media, LLC


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Sarkozy’s New Vision for Paris — Is it Yours?

Written by admin on July 5, 2009 – 3:31 pm -

Here comes French President Sarkozy heralding massive plans to construct a “Greater Paris.” His goal is to link the central city with the outskirts, where there has been incidents of civil unrest in recent years. During a nine-month-long competition, prestigious architects from around the world came up with ten presentations. Here comes French President Sarkozy heralding massive plans to construct a “Greater Paris.” His goal is to link the central city with the outskirts, where there has been incidents of civil unrest in recent years. During a nine-month-long competition, prestigious architects from around the world came up with ten presentations.

The key question is will the French go for a transformation of their capital city? As of now, President Nicholas Sarkozy’s proposal has been met by most people with a resounding thud.

Sarkozy, who has been compared to Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s greatest contribution to the history of megalomania, is giving the Emperor of France more than a little competition—which is one reason some people refer to Sarko as “President Bling-Bling.”

Sarkozy feels Paris “is not only the capital of France but also rivals London, New York, Tokyo and Shanghai. But, Paris can lose her standing if we aren’t careful.” Sarkozy said last April when he inaugurated an exhibition of ten architectural and urban planning proposals at the Paris’s Museum of Architecture and Heritage.

It’s too late to extend Paris’s official borders and the 20 Arrondissents that compose the approximately 41-square-mile large city. The French would never agree to expand its boundaries since it would be considered sacrilege. Critics doubt it can be achieved without dissolving the political boundaries between the city of Paris, which has 2 million inhabitants and the banlieues (suburbs) which house another 6 million people. Jean-Paul Huchon, the Socialist president of the Île-de-France region, fears the new entity could become an “ungovernable monster.”

But Sarkozy still hopes the project will cause the current boundaries to gradually fade in order to permit the formation of a larger region. His view is that it will facilitate improved housing and transportation. Sarkozy is also aiming for Paris to become a major arts center. There would be innumerable ramifications, most especially when it comes to infrastructure. But Sarkozy feels adamant that Paris would and should outshine other capital cities.

Denis Baupin, a Green Party official in the Paris’s city hall, calls Sarkozy’s plans grandstanding. Others feel the project would require money the country simply doesn’t have and the President has assiduously avoided answering the question about where the French government would find the funds to create the world’s first “post Kyoto” city — referring to the treaty regarding climate change and how cities should be developed or be retrofitted to conform.

There hasn’t been such a heated debate about how Paris should look since 1922 when the architect Le Corbusier proposed knocking down much of Central Paris — mainly the area around Beaubourg and Le Marais — that he wanted to fill with Stalinesque high rises, all the same.

While applauding the projects proposed by the panel of architects, Sarkozy approved a new, robotic-driven, 24-hour-a-day Métro system to help integrate the suburbs. It is expected to cost more than 24 billion euros. In addition, Sarkozy approved the construction of a number of skyscrapers and a pyramid designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel stipulating they must be “beautiful and fit compatibly with the existing urban landscape of the city.”

Each president appears to want to leave an architectural legacy. In the end, it is suspected that planning and political constraints will oblige Sarkozy to settle, as his predecessors did, for one or two “great works” instead of a “Greater Paris.” Socialist François Mitterrand had his Louvre pyramid. Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy’s predecessor, put up a museum for primitive art.

Georges Pompidou’s legacy has not fared quite as well. A recent survey showed that Parisians wouldn’t care if La Tour Montparnasse, the tallest skyscraper in France, were torn down.

But changing Paris always causes anxiety. The French are “extremely attached to their past, to their heritage,” the French Academy’s Jean-Marie Rouart said. “The Frenchman is a revolutionary who is extremely conservative. You have to respect our way of life. We’re not like the Americans or the Japanese.”

Others believe the French aren’t that conservative and the younger generation will be more responsive. They are attached to their inherited treasures, but at the same time, they want a new contemporary city and are in search of a new balance.

What’s your take? Is the city of Paris as we know it ultimately to be a thing of the past? Why can’t planners and architects create new cities such a La Defense outside the borders of Paris? Perhaps it’s not forward-looking, there are a huge number of people, French and foreign, who like the City of Light as it is today.

© Paris New Media, LLC


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The First Must-Do When Moving To Paris

Written by admin on July 5, 2009 – 3:28 pm -

One of the questions I’m frequently asked is what’s the first thing a newcomer to Paris should do after arriving.   Yes, you need to find an apartment and get settled so you can get on with your life. But even before identifying a doctor or a dentist—unless you are on the verge of having a heart attack or need a root canal—you’d be well advised to find a café and make it your own. One of the questions I’m frequently asked is what’s the first thing a newcomer to Paris should do after arriving.   Yes, you need to find an apartment and get settled so you can get on with your life. But even before identifying a doctor or a dentist—unless you are on the verge of having a heart attack or need a root canal—you’d be well advised to find a café and make it your own.

Ironically, it may not be only one café. And if it isn’t, you won’t be considered an infidel. People have favorites where they grab a morning coffee, a mid-day drink and places to frequent when it’s good weather or even when the sun’s shining. As the real estate ads say, “location, location, location.”

A café is much more than a place to eat and drink. For many, it serves as a fulcrum, an extended living room where neighbors meet on the run (or not) and perhaps even overhear a modicum of gossip. Paris residents rarely truck across town to spend time at a café, because as nice as it may be, it isn’t theirs.

When I first moved to Paris more than twenty years ago, it was hard to walk a block and not trip over or into at least three cafés.  Those days have changed as fast-food emporiums have replaced these traditional hangouts that generally had much lovingly polished zinc bars — where people stood and dumped cigarette butts on the tile floor, so ashes wouldn’t fly into a patron’s food or drink.

It was always easy to spot the regulars. Before they’d drink a coffee or a glass of wine or Pastis, they’d shake hands with the man behind the bar.  He might or might not be the owner, but was unquestionably in charge. Or perhaps the person who was really in charge was the woman standing by the cash register, collecting the money and surveying everything with hawk-like intensity. If the café was also a tabac, she’d sell the stamps, metro tickets and – OMG! – cigarettes.

Life in France has changed since the no smoking law went into effect and, much to my amazement, people actually respect it – kind of – if only because the smoking cops fine the owners big time if the rule is violated.  Some cafés have even reported an increased lunch business since many of these bars were just too smoky.

The French have always appreciated sitting at outside tables on sunny days. But the tables that used to be placed on sidewalks then, are now there even when it’s freezing.

But there’s been an even more dramatic change. In the 1960’s, there were approximately 200,000 cafes in France. It’s estimated there are currently only somewhat more than 40,000. These cafés have disappeared  – perhaps in the name of globalization.  People have many different choices now but they aren’t the same as a café. Please forgive the U.S. for having introduced McDonald’s to France.

There are Starbucks and places when you can have an ice cream or an Italian gelato. You have a vast choice of places where to grab a sandwich, a cup of tea accompanied by scones or double chocolate fudge brownies.  It’s called progress – I guess.

Another question I’m frequently asked when I’m in the U.S. is what I miss the most about Paris. Let me count the ways … but one thing that’s certain is my corner bar. Even though I don’t inform its staff of my comings and goings, when I walk into the bar the morning I return home, the owner shakes my hand, says “Bonjour” and places a café crème in front of me.  I know Jacques knows when I’ve just returned because a basket of croissants and pain au chocolats appear.  Because I live in France, I try not to eat bread. France may be my adopted home – but I didn’t inherit a French woman’s ability to eat and not have the calories go directly to her hips.

© Paris New Media, LLC


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